Exploring the Unconscious Mind and Microaggressions

Date: Jan 24, 2023
Author: The Pope Team

Have you ever experienced that moment in a conversation when you realize you said or did something offensive in the mind of the person you’re talking to? Quite possibly, you notice a disapproving look on their face or a quick reply about how insensitive your comment felt to them. Most likely, you weren’t intending to be hurtful. Sometimes even a compliment can have the opposite effect if you’re lacking awareness of your own unconscious stereotypes. These kinds of communications are often considered microaggressions. That is, indirect, subtle, or even unintentional statements or actions that negatively affect someone from a marginalized group.

Because a little understanding goes a long way, we want to provide some perspective about unconscious bias and how it can lead to microaggressions, as well as some suggestions for how to examine and address your own.

What happens in our unconscious mind?

Neuropsychology research suggests that only about 5% of our brain function is conscious while 95% is unconscious. It is fascinating how hard our bodies work to help us navigate our various unconscious daily activities like breathing or moving our legs to walk, leaving that relatively small 5% of our conscious mind available to focus on and prioritize what appears to be most important.

It has been scientifically proven that difficult experiences are permanently stored outside our conscious awareness, and they have a huge influence on our behavior. When we experience challenging or dangerous situations, our brains immediately go into fight-or-flight mode. This is thanks to our amygdala, that small part of our limbic brain that is responsible for how we feel emotionally and physically, and how we respond to stress outside of our normal patterns. What that also means is that our unconscious brains will steer away from unfamiliar or unsettling situations while gravitating toward what is familiar and comfortable.

So, then what is unconscious bias?

This term refers to the social labels we assign to certain groups of people or situations beyond our own conscious awareness because of past experiences or the lack thereof. These biases are more prevalent in our daily activities and are often mismatched with how we consciously perceive our values. Our unconscious biases cause us to prejudge a person, group, or situation in unfair and consequential ways. Much research has been done over the years on different kinds of unconscious biases, such as:

  • Affinity bias leads us to favor people with whom we feel we have a connection or likeness.
  • Attribution bias influences how we assess our achievements or failures in comparison or contrast to others.
  • “Halo and horn” effects happen when we perceive positive or negative traits about a person and let them shape our opinion.
  • Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek out, interpret, remember, or reference information that connects to our preconceived opinions (i.e. watching news channels and reading specific magazines, books, etc. that support/reinforce our own beliefs).
  • Name bias is the tendency to prefer or judge people based on their name if it’s different from that of our own culture.

Once you can identify the various kinds of unconscious biases, it’s easy to understand how they can manifest in the workplace. For example, a hiring manager may be completely unaware of why their unconscious zeroed in on a particular candidate above all others. Perhaps there was just something about that individual that was reminiscent of themselves early in their own career. This would be an affinity bias. At the same time, conscious or unconscious name bias could play a role right at the start when sorting through resumes, deselecting those candidates whose names are outside the manager’s own culture.

Bias can insinuate itself into the work culture, too. I was once conducting interviews with managers/leaders asking them “How do you know when you’re really included in the inner circle of power and influence in your organization?” One manager told me that he’d been invited to join an early morning basketball team by a more senior-level manager, and that this senior manager specifically told him, “I knew you were a winner the minute you walked onto the basketball court.” He said he found that hard to believe because, in his mind, he was barely awake, let alone ready for a 6 a.m. basketball game on a workday. When pressed, he admitted he believed the leader was mostly impressed with his height.

When Does Unconscious Bias Turn into Microaggression?

When our unconscious interpretations begin to sway our statements, actions, or indirect use of negative phrases against a person or member of a marginalized group, we can note a conscious shift into covert forms of bias. For example, have you ever heard someone describe a person of color as articulate?  Have you ever noted how well an Asian colleague speaks English? These are examples of when we think we’re paying someone a compliment, but the underlying message is the exact opposite. Rather, the implication of these comments is that such strengths are unusual or unexpected for a particular group of people. That is clearly bias at work. And just imagine how this person feels when they’ve received that same “compliment” 100 or 500 times.

But microaggressions can also take the form of passivity. Decades ago, I was meeting with our marketing manager before he left for a long weekend fishing trip with two of his former high school friends. He had recently gone through one of our in-depth awareness training sessions and was already anticipating how he would respond when his friends inevitably started telling racial jokes, which always happened when they were together. When he returned the following week, I asked how his weekend fishing trip had gone. He talked about how great the weather was and how well the fish were biting. I then asked what happened when his friends began telling those jokes he’d told me about. Long pause. Then he said he just couldn’t bring himself to say anything. Given how long they’d known each other, he didn’t want to ruin the weekend or his friendship with them. He pointed out that, unlike him, they’d never gone to college and had always worked in a factory. Finally, he said nobody was really being hurt by those jokes because it was just the three of them in a fishing boat. I had two responses for him. First, I pointed out that he was stereotyping his friends in negative ways and suggesting they were incapable of changing. And second, I quietly said, “Those jokes are about my kids.”

Microaggressions and the notion of being an ally weren’t in our vocabulary back then. True enough, my kids weren’t on that fishing boat, but I knew how those jokes reinforce negative stereotypes that always seem to float around. Chances are my kids were in school with kids whose parents told those jokes at home, and it wouldn’t be long before the jokes made it to the playground.

Reprogramming our unconscious bias takes conscious effort.

While it may seem easy to process our emotions after a highly stressful experience, it can be challenging to consciously build our self-awareness of those emotions and work to reprogram our responses.

Expanding our conscious awareness is the key to balancing our unconscious actions. When we consciously pay attention to the subtle things—such as noticing an unexpected facial reaction when we’ve said something—we’ve made a decision to learn.

Here are two ways you might respond after realizing something you said or did was hurtful.

  1. “Hey, if I ever say or do something that bothers you in any way, please just let me know.”
  2. “Hey, I think something I said to you yesterday may have impacted you in a way that I didn’t intend. Please accept my apology and know that I’m committed to growing in this area.”

Clearly, the first statement places the burden on the other person. It says, “I’m just going to keep on being me – and it’s your job to let me know if I cross a line.” The second says, “I know I’ve got a lot to learn, and I’m committed to doing my work in this area.”  The second statement is an invitation to a candid conversation. If the trust level is sufficiently high, the person you may have offended might be willing to engage beyond a simple “thank you” when you apologize.

It’s also important to know that those in under-represented groups have great “sincerity detectors.” It’s a built-in survival instinct that knows it’s not just what is said but how it’s said. Long before any type of sexual harassment training occurred in the workplace, most women were able to differentiate between a sincere compliment and a sexual innuendo disguised as a compliment.

It Takes a Bit of Work, But Start with Being Open to Learning

I leave you with these three self-awareness reminders intended to help expand consciousness, self-awareness, and inclusion:

  • Observe – Notice how your own or others’ biases, communications, and actions are pointed toward any under-represented group. Take time to reflect on how your words, phrases, or behaviors might be received by others.
  • Respond – Consider ways to rephrase comments that may not ‘land well’ on others. Apologize (when appropriate) and commit to doing better. Always be careful not to put the responsibility for your growth on others. Also, notice microaggressions against others and identify specific ways that are comfortable for you to be an ally for others.
  • Normalize – Actively seek out opportunities to learn, understand, and gain greater exposure to areas or ideas where your experiences are limited so you can begin to normalize more conscious interpretation and reduce your own biased thoughts.


Suggested Awareness Pit Stop: Identify two actions or areas of bias you will focus on to continue to learn about yourself and/or to be an ally for others.